Friday, March 17, 2006

Guiding the Objective Force Through a Desert Storm

The third anniversary of the Iraq War is coming up. I really don't feel like redebating--yet again--the reasons for going to war. The war was morally just. Iraq was a threat to the region and our security. And Iraq was committed to conquest, terror, and acquiring WMD. Opponents of the war have not been honest in debating or redebating this question so far, so I see no reason to debate the questions of the war just because it will be March 19th.

So instead, let me revisit an older war, the Persian Gulf War (aka Desert Storm or the Second Gulf War). We just passed the fifteenth anniversary of that war, so what the heck, what should we have learned from that war?

We still need heavy armor and notwithstanding the program to field the networked Future Combat Systems (FCS), we will have Abrams and Bradleys around for decades to come. Experience in the Iraq War has renewed the appreciation for the value of sheer weight of armor in protecting our vehicles. I set forth some of my concerns in Military Review several years ago.

I was skeptical of the Stryker as a replacement though I conceded that having a medium force to bridge the gap between leg infantry and heavy mechanized forces was in order. I did draw the line at some of the criticisms like complaints that the vehicle could not drive off the ramp of a C-130 in fighting form. What kind of cluster would we be getting into if our troops have to fight their way off the plane ramp? Iraq experience has convinced me that my initial worries about the Stryker were misplaced--though they must still be used for their niche and not as a replacement for heavy armor.

In the summer of 2001, I entered a Military Review contest on the lessons of the Persian Gulf War ten years after the victory. Sadly, the contest fell apart in editor transition. And when I inquired quite a bit later about the piece, Military Review found my lost entry and looked at it as a stand-alone, but decided against publishing. Pity, since I felt that Desert Storm showed the need for heavy armor rather than seeming to prove heavy armor obsolete.

I've left the essay as is so keep in mind that the term "Objective Force" is out and "Future Force" in. And that is not just a terminology change, I should add. Future Force is a more evolutionary thing for an ongoing war than the Objective Force concept, which assumed a strategic pause in our need for land forces. And IBCTs are now Stryker Brigade Combat Teams.

Plus, I guess I have to admit that this just isn't going to get published anywhere, considering it is two wars behind the curve and the lesson of heavy armor seems to have been relearned in the last few years.

But hey, if you are an editor and are interested, pop me an email on the left.

If I'm up to it, I may critique this later since it is coming up on five years since I wrote it.

Here it is, from June 2001:

The United States Army, which is fielding Initial Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs) as a step toward its leap to the Objective Force, must apply the lessons of Desert Storm to keep ground forces relevant. Learning from Desert Storm, despite our decisive victory, seems pointless to many given the gathering wisdom that chaos rather than armies will be our future "enemy." Arguing that we must prepare the Army for combat exposes such advocates to charges by those conversant in the language of computers, networks, and business that they are mere traditionalists who miss the Cold War and just don't understand the new world. In its haste to disprove critics who accuse the Army of preparing to fight the last war, the Army must not uncritically accept what those critics say are the lessons of the Persian Gulf War.

Those critics have discounted heavy forces and numbers in their assumption that victory is our birthright. The Army cannot simply think of the war with nostalgic warmth as a glorious but irrelevant episode. Operation Desert Storm is the most recent significant war that the Army has waged and must provide the basis of the Army's transformation process. The old complaint that generals prepare to fight the last war has been replaced by the complaint that our generals prepare for war. This assumption must not stand. We must examine the Gulf War accepting that the lessons of war are still necessary to learn. And we must do so before our next war.

The Army seeks a networked Objective Force that wields precise firepower combined with vastly superior situational awareness. The campaign will develop at incredible speed with current sequential tasks carried out concurrently or at a compressed rate. This "Information Storm" is designed to stun and crush anybody that dares to deploy on a battlefield against us. The 2001 Division Capstone Exercise (DCX) against the renowned OpFor at the National Training Center was a breathtaking demonstration of this capability. But these were digitized Legacy Force units--excellent but heavy. Executing this Information Storm anywhere in the world is a separate and far more difficult challenge.

Much of the impetus for the transformation process draws strength from the difficulties the Army has had in responding to the military operations other than war that have proliferated since 1989. Task Force Hawk's lengthy deployment to Albania during Allied Force and the hypothetical problem of airlifting troops into Rwanda during the slaughter there earlier in the '90s highlighted the Army’s mobility problem. The Army found it could not easily move its superb heavy units to theaters far from established bases or to ones that lack an infrastructure suitable for mechanized forces. To solve this dilemma, precise firepower and situational awareness, as tested in DCX, will allow the Army to be lightened and reduced in numbers so that the Objective Force may be airlifted rapidly from the Continental United States (CONUS) and sustained with minimal in-theater support units and efficient just-in-time logistical support. The first division will be fighting in five days. The Army hopes to put five divisions on the ground ready to fight in 30 days.

Unfortunately, the very success of Desert Storm has obscured its lessons and allowed us to focus transformation too much on non-war crises. Indeed, in attempting so much it risks overlooking that whatever future conflict America enters could be "war." We cannot forget that the Information Storm we wish to unleash on a future enemy will be war with all the death and destruction that the term should imply. If we accept that the Objective Force will fight wars, then the differences between what we have should have learned and what we did learn will be the difference between winning and losing that future war.

Operation Desert Storm can teach us lessons in strategic mobility; the utility of heavy armored forces; the size of the Army; and our confidence in victory. In all four areas, Desert Storm has lessons that we have either refused to accept or have failed to comprehend fully.

We learned that it takes too long to deploy to distant theaters. We learned that the preoccupation with applying overwhelming force to win quickly hindered our rapid initiation of the offensive. The accelerated deployment schedule and commitment to fight early is a striking contrast to the long build-up of Desert Storm as it changed from a shield to a saber. How we get a strategically mobile yet still lethal Objective Force out of the transformation process is unclear, but we know we want it. This need for speed drives the process, yet speed is primarily useful to repel a "bolt from the blue" invasion against an already identified ally. In most other scenarios, speed will be irrelevant or create problems.

What if we succeed in reaching our speed goal? How will we mobilize national and world opinion for war when deployment means fighting--soon? The time it took in 1990-91 to deploy the heavy divisions to the Saudi desert was not squandered by the government. The President marshaled public opinion here and abroad for the necessity of waging offensive war to liberate Kuwait. He had six months to convince a wary public and Congress that a ground war over a small albeit important kingdom was in our interests. In an era when no mortal threats by a peer competitor loom over America, a President will have to convince the people that we will go to war in five days against a smallish country for smallish aims. We may create the pre-1914 environment of "mobilization means war." If we succeed in transforming the military so that it enters combat a week from the "go" order, how will we ever deploy it? How will a president garner domestic and international backing for war in five days? Boarding the C-17s may mean war.

What if we don't need to rush to the theater? What if we have plenty of time before the fighting starts--or there is a question of whether war will start? Enhanced speed of deployment will be wasted if we don't go into combat immediately. Will we feel compelled to fight as soon as we arrive in theater even if we should not? If we can wait, will we not wish we had the heavier forces that we are preparing to abandon by the end of the transformation process?

Heavy Armor
The single-minded focus on speed in deployment logically led to criticism of our heavy divisions and the determination to replace heavy armor as the core of our war winning forces. Decisive battlefield victory in Desert Storm appeared to give us the luxury of discounting heavy armor. The heavy forces that smashed their way into southern Iraq are now judged dinosaurs unable to reach a theater in time to do any good. Task Force Hawk's lengthy deployment confirmed this lesson and reinforced the trend to lighten the Army. Surely, the theory goes, our vehicles can be lighter and still deliver victory if we compensate with other advances. This lesson assumes overwhelming victory as a constant in the equation and holds that the only thing left to do is speed up the process to get a better result. Victory is not a given. The lighter forces that result will need to replicate VII Corps' clenched fist driving into the Republican Guards with smaller fingers poking the enemy individually as they arrive. We believe technology will allow this to work. We shall see.

One way we believe technology will help compensate for light vehicles is a God-like view of the battlefield for our commanders. We assume that a transparent battlefield and superior communications will allow us to run circles around our foes and always shoot first. Today's push for a light deployable Army is bolstered by the dubious lesson that a footloose maneuver-oriented Army ran around a numerically superior and immobilized Iraqi army. But Iraqi forces successfully maneuvered into blocking positions against the American-led left hook even though they operated without battlefield awareness. Although they failed to stop VII Corps, they did turn to meet the attack head on. Clearly, our information dominance did not paralyze the enemy. Only our heavy armor and massive firepower allowed us to bulldoze our way through the Iraqi defenders.

In less ideal terrain and against a smarter enemy, this feat could not have been achieved with light armor. French light armored forces in the Gulf War were deemed too weak for the main punch and were given a screening role on the far western flank where they were unlikely to encounter serious opposition. Extolling the flexibility of French forces to bolster the rationale for the IBCT should not obscure the actual combat experience of the Gulf War. Light forces, whether light infantry, paratroopers, light armor, air mobile infantry, or Marines, were either not deployed, sent to the flanks, or reinforced with armor for a secondary thrust. Heavy forces delivered the decisive blow.

The Army certainly needs IBCT-like forces. The creation of these medium units, however, should come at the expense of the Army's light forces and not the heavy forces. If we want foot infantry, we already have four divisions of Marines, paratroopers, and Rangers. Fortunately, the digitized Legacy Force will remain the core of the counter-attack force for some time. We have time to reconsider whether we can have lethality, survivability, and lightness.

The weight of individual fighting vehicles was only part of the new wisdom of deploying an invincible Army. The very size of the Army needed to win, already reduced greatly since the Soviet Union collapsed, is questioned too.

We believe our technologically advanced force smashed the Iraqis despite being outnumbered. In fact, the Coalition decisively outnumbered the Iraqis in the Kuwait Theater of Operations and possessed superior technology. We learned we will never fight alone so why worry about numbers? Allies will provide the cannon fodder, right? Yet the most significant force that fought alongside the Army in the Gulf was not any allied force, but the United States Marine Corps. The burden in almost any future ground war will be on the Army's shoulders. Even a ground war over Kosovo in Europe itself could not have depended on Europeans.

We also learned that fighting more than one Major Theater War (MTW) will never happen since nobody took advantage of our commitment to Desert Storm to challenge us elsewhere. But that deterrence was made possible by a military still at Cold War strength. The military designed to fight the USSR and North Korea proved capable of fighting Iraq while deterring North Korea. That is hardly shocking. Anticipating the Objective Force, the current "two MTW" standard (which isn't really "two" because of the often-forgotten "nearly simultaneous" inserted there) may be abandoned formally. If this is done, deterrence will suffer. In addition, any hope we may have to retain the capability of fighting a peer competitor will vanish.

It seems safe to emphasize rapid deployment, abandon heavy forces, and discount mere numbers of troops because of the most unfortunate lesson. We learned we are unbeatable. Braced for thousands of casualties to break an Iraqi army hardened by its long war with Iran in the 1980s, we were stunned by the apparent ease of victory. Although few would admit this if pressed on the point, the very fact that we are seeking a smaller, lighter Army and are willing to thrust it into combat piecemeal upon arrival in the theater is unassailable proof that we do assume victory.

And we assume other countries know this too and so will never challenge the Army on the battlefield. All threats are asymmetric now. This is wishful thinking. Victory in Desert Storm will not give us credit toward the next war. We have to fight each one individually because every future enemy will have chosen to fight despite our last victory. They aren't scared of us. They may respect our power, but they think they can win. We must respect that determination. The proper lesson is that a military equipped and trained for the fiercest foe is ready to win decisively against lesser foes; and that decisive victory can lower casualties if it ends the war quickly.

We learned that we will not accept losses to win--because we did win decisively with few deaths; and we learned we cannot kill too many of the enemy--because of the "Highway of Death" images. Force protection, reliance on air power, and our fascination with non-lethal weapons are the result. We should have learned the public is prepared to lose thousands if the objective is worthy; and that as long as the outcome is in doubt, we can pound our enemy without guilt. Only after the Iraqi army was in full retreat did questions of excessive force gain a sympathetic ear. Have no doubt, if American troops had suffered losses breaking through Iraqi defenses, the sense of fair play would have dissolved.

Inexplicably, many seem to have drawn the conclusion that we did not win the Persian Gulf War despite battlefield success. Saddam Hussein's continued rule and the low level air war that continues are cited as proof. Since the war did not end all the problems we sought to resolve, we are to believe it failed. By this logic, World War II was a failure because a costly Cold War followed. We can extend this logic back to the Revolution since the British did not immediately vacate all American land and did not accept American independence until the War of 1812. Under this strict measure, it may not be possible to win any war. This is cynicism raised to ridiculous proportions. America and its allies won the Persian Gulf War. Just as true, the world continued and we must deal with old, new, and continuing problems. That is life.

Nonetheless, there is something to be learned from admitting the imperfection of the victory. Ten years after the war began, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz stated that Kuwait "got what it deserved" in August 1990. Limited wars for limited objectives may limit the war duration and destruction but also limit the ability to shape the post-war situation. In an age with no looming threat that can call upon sacrifices to defeat, we must accept that we cannot have total war results with limited war means. Lesser objectives are not worth a hard struggle, it seems. Desert Storm taught us that going to war for small goals, even when our national interest is involved (preserving access to oil and reversing the conquest of a friendly state are certainly important), is difficult. Notwithstanding the difficulty, Desert Storm should also have taught us that the American people can be persuaded to fight for objectives consistent with our vital interests. Going to war with that support was invaluable.

Ironically enough, for those critics who demand a greater purpose than "just" self-interest, we actually achieved one. The Persian Gulf War was more than the liberation of Kuwait. We learned we beat a second-rate military power, but by smashing a scaled down replica of the Red Army, America really beat the USSR by proxy. The Gulf War was the military victory that confirmed the end of the Cold War as a decisive Western victory. With the obvious domination of American ground and air power culminating in the 100-hour ground war, no revivalist Russian nationalist can argue that the West did not really beat the Soviet Union.

Victory also reassured Americans that we won the Cold War--we did not merely falter last in an exhausting struggle between two teetering systems. Victory made America a "hyper power" feared or envied. Without the military victory of the Persian Gulf War, we may have viewed ourselves as lucky survivors of that struggle rather than the victors who dominate the globe. Remember that the fall of the Berlin Wall took place scant years after the argument was made by Professor Paul Kennedy that America was a declining power burdened by "imperial overstretch." Victory has given us the confidence to leap beyond the security of our current capabilities and seek the Objective Force. With common sense to restrain our wilder impulses, this is a good result.

Technologically superior heavy forces and air power decisively prevailed in Desert Storm after a laborious deployment to the Gulf. With lighter and fewer but technologically superior troops, we expect to deploy globally from CONUS and smash any enemy rapidly and with few casualties. Desert Storm, updated to Information Storm, will become a Global Storm. Our Information Storm cannot become global without tradeoffs. If we lighten the Army too much and optimize it for stability operations, our troops will be shocked if we must fight even a single MTW, let alone something worse. Training to beat the Soviet first team provided tremendous benefits when we faced a lesser opponent such as Iraq. Now we train for lesser threats and too many question whether that is overpreparing.

What we ultimately should have learned is that 1991 was made possible by more than a decade of work that rebuilt the post-Vietnam United States Army from its nadir and focused it on conventional warfare to defend Europe and South Korea. Although this was a narrowly focused mission, because of its excellence the Army was able to win on the offensive in the desert at the end of a long logistics tether away from major established bases. Desert Storm demonstrated that a good combat-ready Army can adapt to unfamiliar situations. We should certainly have learned that our ability and willingness to put combat-ready soldiers on the ground translates into real power. Without that power, there will be no new Army storms worthy of the name.